Belfast Service Learning Trip Resonates with Wheelock Social Work Students

Wheelock Social Work students Clara Hobson and Colleen McGowan recently participated in a service learning trip to Northern Ireland led by Wheelock Professor of Early Childhood Diane Levin and Wheelock Dean of Social Work, Leadership, and Youth Advocacy Hope Haslam Straughan. McGowan did her service with a group called Alternatives Restorative Justice and Hobson served with an organization that provides play therapy to children from the Traveler community. Following are their reflections on their experiences.

Wheelock Social Work student Clara Hobson (far right) in Northern Ireland.

By Clara Hobson

The service learning trip to Belfast, Northern Ireland was incrediblly beneficial to my social work practice. The city of Belfast has a complex history, as they are working to overcome years of community violence. As a social worker, it was incredible to see all the grassroots organizations committed to finding social stability for its citizens.

During my time there I also had the privilege to work with an organization that provides play therapy to children within the Traveler community. For those who don’t know, Travelers live in extreme isolation from mainstream society and face an incredible amount of discrimination. Often the children do not attend school, and the family will spend a portion of their time traveling to other countries seeking employment.

I was fortunate enough to be allowed in their homes, to speak with the parents about there lived experiences. What I discovered in these conversations was a feeling of global citizenship. Their stories and hardships mirrored many experiences families of color can have in the United States. Through these common threads, Traveler families felt that I not only understood them, but that speaking to me was a cathartic release.

Social work is about providing people with the supports they need in times of duress, and working to understand their view of the world. Taking part in these conversations gave me both, the privilege to hear about a way of life I previously had not known, and providing families a small amount of solace by simply listening to their truth.


Wheelock students met a variety of young learners during the Northern Ireland service learning trip.

By Colleen McGowan

Not only was I lucky enough to go on the service learning trip to Belfast, Northern Ireland, I was also lucky enough to work with Alternatives Restorative Justice. The primary goal of this organization is to bring communities and neighborhoods together and to eliminate para military punishment following the Troubles.   From having a presence in schools to intensive youth support, Alternatives not only has support programs for children and families, but neighborhoods as well. Their main goal is to maintain peace throughout Belfast by engaging communities to come together, in peace, without prejudice.

I saw firsthand the wonderful work they have done in Belfast and continue to do. I saw how restorative justice is much more effective in building relationships than paramilitary or legal punishment for petty crime. I learned how bringing victim and offender together for restitution works better than the offender going through the criminal justice system.

I have done a lot of reflecting since returning to the United States. I realized that in not so many words Wheelock College and Alternatives both aim to improve the lives of children and families. I thought about how what I learned in Belfast will only benefit me in future practice and that the friendships formed while on the will be lifelong. I thought about if community organizations in Belfast can make a difference than those in the United States can too. If there is a will, there is a way.

Going on this trip has allowed me to experience things I would never have otherwise. Overall, I have a renewed hope in humanity and cannot wait to see what the future holds.